How did the child of drug addicted parents get herself off the streets of New York City to Harvard University?  When she was 16 years old Elizabeth Murray’s mother died of drug-related illness and she determined that her own life would be different.

Murray spent much of her childhood shuttling between homeless shelters, friends' houses and the streets with her drug-addicted parents.  Food was scarce and everything, including her sister’s winter jacket, was sold to buy drugs. ‘We ate ice cubes because it felt like eating. We split a tube of toothpaste between us for dinner,’ she says. At the age of nine, Murray was pumping gas and bagging groceries, the only member of the family to have a job.

After her mother’s death, she says, ‘I connected the lifestyles that I had witnessed every day with how my mother ended up, and if there was anything that I could do about it, that would not happen to me. So I wanted to get back into school. But I was homeless.’

She enrolled at high school although she was still sleeping where she could and studying in hallways and stairwells. With the support of the principal, she applied for a New York Times scholarship to Harvard which she won. A story about the scholarship winners was featured in the local newspapers.

‘New Yorkers have this reputation for being really cold, right? Well, the readers of the newspaper came out of their houses around [the school] and brought me sweaters and clothing their kids weren't using any more. Some lady came just to give me a hug! Another came just with some cookies, then she said to me, "I don't have any money, Liz, but I have a station wagon and a house. Do you have any laundry?’’ 

‘It's not about Harvard, it's not about a prestigious school,’ she told an audience at DePauw University.  ‘It's about learning, about educating yourself and gathering enough knowledge to find your way through any little crack or crevice you possibly can so you can move up and escape from that trap you were born into.’

Liz Murray graduated from Harvard in 2009 and she plans to continue her studies, saying she doesn’t want to be just an inspirational speaker. She wants to be able to give other strategies for people to transform themselves. Her company Manifest Living offers workshops to empower adults; she has written a book ‘Breaking Night’ and a movie ‘Homeless to Harvard’ was made in 2003.

‘There's the boot-strapping element,’ Murray says, ‘but my story is what happens when people in your community step up and they care about you. I want to make sure people aren't left with the message that we all have to achieve everything by ourselves. It's really a community effort to have people be successful, and it's also taking personal responsibility.’

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